Here we go. Big Damned Finale. Twenty one chapters, three updates a week (seriously? Having between 21,000 and 30,000 words a week isn't fast enough? Sarcasm here of course), makes for two months of putting this thing up online. Everything was coming to this.
It also seems the center function isn't working. Annoying.
We get a rare look at what Sokka's capable of when you really piss him off. Aang finally realizes what he's been doing wrong. Katara gets into an unexpected knife fight. Zuko's a hopeless romantic. Ozai is a douchebag. Hakoda defenestrates the Avatar. This is it. Pillars of Heaven.
Jeong Jeong reeled, clutching at the side of his head where the shield had caromed off before spinning into the distance. His hands came back red, his scalp split under the assault. He turned his dark golden eyes at the woman who had defied all logical possibility and not only survived more than five seconds, but had made a thorough nuisance of herself for... well, as long as she had.
"What's wrong, Jeong Jeong? Should I give you time to take a nap?" the unholy abomination asked him. Only one eye glared with brilliant white light, now. Mainly, it was because the other one was missing. But despite the heinous wounds that he'd managed to inflict upon her, she seemed utterly inured to pain, fighting despite what should have been crippling agony. She was no firebender, nor a bender of any sort, and she was still standing against him.
"Whatever you are, you won't win this," Jeong Jeong said darkly. "You can't defeat me. Not today. Not with Sozin's Comet behind me."
"I don't have to win," the Lotus smirked unevenly, her lips pulling at cracked and bleeding skin. "I just need to make sure you miss your ride."
Jeong Jeong's eyes widened, and he turned to the east. All of the airships had vanished over the horizon, gone he knew not how long. He turned back, hatefully, to the impossible creature before him. "You... are more clever than I had thought possible," Jeong Jeong admitted.
"A compliment, from you?" Lotus Suki asked. "I feel like I need a bath."
"Trust me, you don't," Jeong Jeong said. He flicked out a finger, blasting in his signature, Firestorm style. Instead of a blast the size of a small rodent, the rapidly traveling bolt ws the size of a Kuei ball. It smashed through Suki's leg, and Jeong Jeong followed it up with a blastwave of percussion which cracked nearby stone, and still had enough power behind it to send the woman dashing against the rocks. Her hands twitched, lying there broken, but she didn't make any movement toward standing. Good. Dealt with.
"This is a minor setback," Jeong Jeong said, rising to the lip of the caldera and looking at the airships burning below. "And this is not over."
Jeong Jeong walked away, fairly confident that he would not be serving the Phoenix King again. The idea did not bother him.
Sokka huddled over Toph as chunks of metal pelted his back. He might not be an all powerful bender, but at least he was tough as the walls of Ba Sing Se, so if nothing else, he could serve as a worthwhile umbrella. "You still with us?" Sokka asked, casting only a glance to the airship which upended and smashed headlong into the Pillars of Heaven. Even though his brain told him that Ty Lee, the first new airbender in the modern age, would be fine, his heart still screamed of panic.
"Everything still works," Toph said. Her eyes went wide, and her scarred hands patted on the mesh. "Incoming!"
Sokka spun away, drawing his Space Sword, as a hatch opened onto the top of the airship they'd landed on. A firebender, wearing that grim death's-head mask spotted the two, and made to throw an enormous blaze of fire. Years of fighting had made Sokka quick, though, even faster than somebody who didn't need a weapon. A dash, toward the attacker, and then a twist as he got out of the way of the first gout of flames, and his Space Sword lashed out, slicing through the man's armor and flesh with equal, contemptuous ease, digging an arm's length into the man's body. He was dead before he even knew it. Sokka slammed the hatch down, and a ripple traveled along the mesh, warping the seal and jamming it closed.
"Thanks for the assist," Sokka said, hauling Toph up behind him. He pointed to the far back of the ship. "You're going to need to bend that rudder into a turning position. The ship will spiral into the others."
"No problem," Toph said, easily matching his speed despite her vastly shorter stride.
"Have I ever told you how great it is that you invented metalbending?" Sokka asked.
"You could stand to mention it more often," she quipped. Sokka glanced up, then shoved Toph to the ground just barely getting her out of the way of a blast of flame, himself running harder to slash at the crow's nest. As easily as it cut through metal, the Space Sword parted the higher deck, sending the firebender who had just about consumed them into a wobble. A quick run to the other side, and another slash, and the entire structure fell off of the airship.
"This is endless!" Sokka shouted. Toph got to her feet and started to run toward him again. When she caught back up to him Sokka's eyes went wide as hatches began to open near the tail of the ship. Firebenders, too far away to deal with and too numerous to simply avoid, began to pile onto the flotation of the airship. Sokka grabbed Toph and looked to the edge. "We're going to have to jump!"
Holding Toph like an oversized child, he sprinted perpendicular to the firebenders and their blasting rays, down the increasing slope of the flotation. He spun the Space Sword in his hand, and jammed it into the structure as he slid. Unfortunately, the weapon proved capable of cutting with contemptuous ease whether he wanted it to or not; it didn't slow his descent at all. When the blade finally slipped out of the long scar it was cutting, it was directly over the fire decks. By some miracle, the platforms which had been retracted before were opened, and Sokka landed hard on them.
Pain erupted through his entire body, from his head to his feet. His arm, still clutching Toph, was a definite peak. It felt as though it had been pulled from its socket. And considering the forces involved, he should be glad that it wasn't torn off his body. Sokka didn't feel shame that he let out a cry of pain. The Space Sword was still in his other hand, though. Through tears of pain, he spotted two firebenders, looking at him in shock, wondering where he'd come from. Knowing that they could vaporize them both in an instant, Sokka did what Sokka did fastest; something stupid.
Sokka hurled the Space Sword at the platform just behind one firebender, shearing the platform off and sending the firebender plummeting to the ground of Wulong Forest. He quickly grabbed his boomerang and hurled it at the one standing opposite the first, this one tethered into place. The boomerang severed the tether. Below, he saw Toph pull her own Space Metal chain from her neck, and in an instant, form it into a bullet, which flew at enormous speed, striking the man from his purchase and sending him down into the long fall.
"Ooooh," Sokka said. "Bye... Space Sword."
"Help me up!" Toph shouted. Sokka tried to move even a hair, but the pain was devastating.
"I... I don't think Boomerang's comin' back, Toph," Sokka said. "Just... Just hold on."
"Wouldn't dream of otherwise, Captain Boomerang," Toph said, fear in her tone. Of course she was afraid. She knew how dangerous this was. She was helpless, blind, and dependant on him to keep her from dying. That had to be terrifying. Sokka felt, despite that horrible pain, that her hand was slipping out of his. He fought to tighten his grip, but he'd just as easily firebent. She started to slip.
"Hold on!" Sokka shouted.
"I'm trying!" Toph screamed, terror plain. Then... there was nothing. The pull of weight on Sokka's arm vanished. Sokka let out an anguished cry, and pulled that dislocated arm up and in front of him. Right out of its socket. He heard footfalls before him, and saw three firebenders, staring down their fists at him from the center of the fire deck.
"Surrender, and you will be treated mercifully," one of them said. These three weren't wearing their helmets. Two of them didn't look much older than Sokka.
"No?" the one in the center asked, as though he'd never heard the word before. Sokka pushed himself to his feet.
"No. I've been holding back until now," Sokka said, feeling rage wash over him. "I've always had somebody to protect. Somebody who needed me. But that's all gone now. Now it's just me," The oldest one, the most professional, began to thrust forward, but the only thing more quick than stupid Sokka was dangerous Sokka. With his remaining, usable hand, he pulled a pen from his pocket, flipped it the right way in his hand, and hurled it at the firebender's face in a fraction of an instant. It lanced through one of the man's eyes, sending his flare wide and into one of the other two. That other firebender just stopped existing. The last, a dark haired and dark eyed youth of Sokka's age, stared in fear. "Just let old Sokka speak his piece," Sokka said.
The man took an unsteady step backward as his superior writhed on the deck in pain. Sokka took a lurching step forward, pain exploding up his leg as he walked. Yup, it was broken. "I am Water Tribe. We always protect our own. But do you know what happens when we lose everybody we protected? We call it 'blood drunk'. We go into a fight we know we can't win, just hoping to do as much damage as we can. I don't have anybody left, firebender. It's just me and this airship."
"But you're arm is broken, and so's your leg," the firebender said, still backing away from Sokka's slow advance.
"Yeah. I've also got a concussion and there's even a chance that I've got a collapsed lung," Sokka admitted. "I've got no defenses, no weapons worth a damn. No plans, no allies, no hope of success," Sokka smiled, a brutal, bloody smile. "And doesn't that just scare you to death? I'm still going to win. Because right now, I'm feeling a little blood drunk. So, firebender, here I am. Want to test your mettle against a Tribesman?"
The firebender glanced at Sokka, then at his superior, then at the sooty smear which used to be his peer. His hands dropped and he sprinted away from the fire deck as though Sokka were Koh the Face Stealer and he'd just sneezed. Sokka felt himself drop to a knee. It wasn't a bluff. As much pain as he was feeling, all he wanted right now was to spread it to others. The Water Tribes were so resilient because they only got harder to kill the more of them went down. Sokka, as he'd said, felt blood drunk. He wanted to kill them all.
And that wasn't like him at all.
There was a lurch, the entire ship suddenly shifting course. Sokka fell and slid toward the other side of the fire deck. The senior firebender slid right out into space, but Sokka managed to get ahold of a railing before he could make that same plummet. So much for his pen, too. Luckily, he had more where that came from. He clung to the rail, but his own grip wouldn't last forever. He did have a concussion, no two ways about that. Things were beginning to get a bit fuzzy. Big and fuzzy. Big and white and fuzzy. And licking Sokka in the face. Wait. What?
"Get on you goon!" Ty Lee shouted, and the sky bison lowered a bit, allowing Sokka to flop forward onto its head. It was much smaller than Appa, small enough that only he, Ty Lee, and Toph, who was clinging to its back, could effectively ride it. Its horns hadn't even come in, yet, and its markings were more silver than grey.
"What... the hell?" Sokka asked.
"Basu, meet Sokka. Sokka, meet Basu!" Ty Lee said enthusiastically. Sokka turned to Toph.
"You're not dead!" Sokka said.
"And you've taken a blow to the head," Ty Lee said, pulling Sokka back down beside her. "Come on, we need to get away from this thing."
The sky bison moved effortlessly through the air. Sokka wasn't sure, but he could have sworn he saw... "Are those airships attacking each other?" he asked.
"I kinda accidentally amplified your little Wang Fire speech," Ty Lee said. "I think everybody heard it. And not everybody likes Ozai very much," the ship that he'd been hitching a ride on began to slam through those which hadn't broken formation. Toph had done as he said, sabotaging their ship. Good man/girl, Toph. Sokka ran his fingers through 'Basu's fur. "He knew just when I needed to find him."
"You came back," Sokka said.
Ty Lee grinned. "I always will."
Katara counted herself extremely lucky, all things considered. When Azula began her savage, animal attack, it had started with the woman trying to hurl lightning at Katara, but when she tried, it blew up in her face, sending her reeling backwards. Katara began running toward Zuko, but Azula, for all her mind apparently being gone, still attacked with a vicious frenzy, azure gouts of flame searing close with every thrust of hand or foot.
Katara dived behind a pillar, waiting as the column of blue flame parted around it. There was no way that the waterbender could reach Zuko or his wife. Azula stood between them. Katara gathered the water from the trough and hurled it toward the firebender, but Azula smashed through it with a bolt of fire, exploding it into steam, before taking a leap forward, and slamming a fist toward Katara. Instead of fire, a shockwave of force tore away, smashing every pillar nearby and sending part of the structure rumbling to the ground.
Katara bounded out of her cover, pulling the water that flowed in the trough into a plane she could skate on to safer ground. This wasn't how Katara expected it. Even through her mortal fear, justified given the circumstance, she couldn't help but disbelieve that Azula had turned into this mute beast. She would have expected cruel barbs, insults, denigrations, ethnic slurs, obscenities of every description. But instead, Azula was lashing out with nothing but animal grunts and shrieks; her eyes shone not with malice, but all consuming terror.
Katara stumbled off the plane as the water ran out, and had to dive again to avoid another exploding blast of fire. But this one wasn't monumentally large. No, this one was almost just the same as the one's Azula had used against her during the fights preceding Katara's discovery of the Blood Moon. Katara twisted, hurling water from the opposite trough toward Azula, exploding it into a flurry of icicles. The old Azula would have been able to stop the attack like it was nothing. This Azula wasn't so lucky. Ice smashed into her armor, knocking her onto her back. She scrambled to all fours like a beast, and let out an animal roar, before slamming more fire at Katara. There was no control.
Katara almost stood her ground, but when she saw the wave of fire that Azula levied next, she thought better of it. Katara hurled herself into the trough, freezing the water over her head just as the wave rolled over. Azula's power seemed to wax and wane, and Katara couldn't see the system behind it. All she needed was one good shot, and Azula would be down. But she didn't know when to deliver it. And she was denied time to think about it when Azula bounded onto that block of ice over Katara's head, her inhuman golden eyes staring down, before she let out a muted shriek and slammed her fist down, blue fire flash-evaporating the ice.
Katara bent the trough to send her rocketing its entire length under the water, then spewing her forth onto the edge of the Court. Katara quickly ducked behind a forest of pillars, and listened. Azula's wheezing breath could be heard in the otherwise silent scape. Katara didn't like her chances. She had to come up with something, and fast.
Zuko felt like he should have died twice over. But the amount of pain he was still in informed him that he had to be alive. Death was peace, life was pain. There was much more of the latter than the former. He could still feel the monumental power of Sozin's Comet pouring into him, but he knew instinctively that his body wouldn't handle very much more.
Zuko lifted his head, opening his eyes. What he saw would have driven him to his knees were he not lying on his wounded chest. Mai. No, she couldn't be. He crawled toward her, every movement of his muscles sending electric agony through him. Zuko, however, had become almost inured to physical pain. After living with it for so long, it faded into the background. He moved to his wife, the love of his life. No. Please. Don't be...
Her chest rose and fell, and one grey hand was over a burnt hole in her dress. Zuko moved the hand away. Despite her respiration, there was no vitality in her. Her skin was cold. Her lips were turning blue, even with her breath. Her eyes, heavily lidded, stared sightlessly. "You can't be dead!" Zuko croaked. He reached forward, demanding power. He laid his hand on the wound, and cradled the other under her delicate neck, pulling her close to him. "I did this to you. Why could you just stay away? I can't do this again. I can't lose everything..."
And Zuko just let pure energy flow. He didn't direct it, he didn't guide it, he didn't shape it. He just demanded that it move, away from him, and into her. Any amount. All of it, if need be. Under his hands, blinding white light flowed; her skin became warm, then flush with vitality. Her pallor went from grey to its more healthy if still unusual pale. As she grew stronger, Zuko grew weaker, and he didn't care. Finally, she drew a deep breath, coughing and spitting up something bloody and painful looking. Zuko's hand fell away, since he no longer had the strength to hold it in place. Instead of a brutal hole through her body and lung, there was an ugly scar, as though she'd suffered it in her childhood instead of a few seconds ago. She looked at him, shock on her face. He looked back.
"I love you," he said quietly. Then, everything went away.
Aang baked inside his stone egg. While his earthbending could hold the structure of the orb together, his panicked mind couldn't figure out what to do next. If he released the egg for even an instant, Ozai would blast him to ashes. He'd thought himself a more powerful firebender, but as Zuko had repeatedly and unflinchingly driven into Aang's head, it wasn't about power, it was about control.
Ozai had control.
The heat radiating through the stone was unbearable. Even if the Fire Lord didn't break the rock, the heat would broil him. His helplessness and his vulnerability sparked outrage. He was the Avatar! He wasn't supposed to lose to the bad guy! This wasn't the way these stories were supposed to go!
shou xiang xing shi yi fu ru shi
she li zi shi zhu fa kong xiang.
The words still flowed, a chant from another world, sliding through Aang's mind. Only they and Ozai's triumphant laughter could be heard, beyond the popping of rock that was trying to expand for the heat. What were those words trying to tell him? He couldn't remember the song. It was important, but his distractions were dire and pressing.
"You can't hide forever, Avatar!" the Fire Lord shouted, laughing cruelly. Through Aang's tremor sense, he could feel Ozai looming over the rock. He swept a blast of flame from either side, lifting the orb from the ground, and smashing it forward into the very heart of the Pillars of Heaven. When Aang came to a stop, he was battered, bruised, and holding desperately to consciousness, lest the stone crumble around him. "How fitting you hide. Just like you have for the last century. But there's nowhere left to hide, Avatar. I have you now."
bu sheng bu mie bu gou bu jing bu zeng bu jian.
Aang finally recognized it. As the unbearable fires of the Fire Lord burst Aang's defenses, hurling Aang into the stone behind him, he recognized it. The Heart Sutra. For just an instant, he knew what it meant, what he had to do. But then, the stone began to rain down around him.
Katara leaned out of hiding, and almost got her head burnt off for her trouble. Azula's attacks were inconsistent, sometimes powerful to the point of lunacy, melting the very stone of the Fire Court. Other times, they were relatively pitiful, no more powerful than that she'd used against them last year. But more consistent was the fact that Azula's aim was gone. Every attack seemed to to be a matter of chance if it went in Katara's direction. Only the fact that there was so damned much fire kept Azula dangerous.
Katara hurled herself forward, sliding along a plane of ice she created, trying to get to Zuko and Mai, since Azula had abandoned them for the moment. A glance over her shoulder showed Azula leaping into an axe kick, but she stumbled on the landing. It didn't stop the monumental wave of fire from almost burning her hair. She dove behind the pillars, staring down through a lattice at the water which fed the trough. If she could have depended on Azula acting like a human being, she could have used it, but as it was, it was just useful as a reload of her depleted stores.
Katara slid next to Zuko's still body, but her eyes widened. Where was Mai? She decided she couldn't waste any time thinking about that. She was about to empower her water, to see if she could quickly heal some of the damage, when she heard a bestial shriek behind her. She turned, trying to bring up an icy shield, but when Azula thrust her blunted fingers forward, a farting sound erupted, and a flicker of red flame leaked toward Katara. It wasn't even enough for her to feel the heat of it. Golden eyes went wider, wilder, more terrified. Katara lashed forward with her water, trying to bind the mad firebender's feet, but Azula for all her madness hadn't lost her dexterity. She bounded over the attack, pulling a long knife from her belt, slashing at Katara.
There were many things Katara was. Grandmaster waterbender stood tall amongst them, but she had never been in a knife fight. That was her brother's sort of thing. So when the blade slashed across her neck, deep enough to cut but not enough to murder, she threw herself away, clutching the shallow gash that started just under the jaw and terminated at the top of her sternum. Katara's panic almost blinded her. She could defend herself from a maddened, Comet empowered firebender, but not from a crazy bitch with a knife?
Katara's water was too far away to use quickly enough. All she had was her wits. "Come on, do it!" Katara shouted, holding her bleeding neck. Her scream actually made Azula hesitate, her glance toward her brother almost heartbreaking. Utter confusion. She glanced back to Katara like she was the only threat. But her hesitation ended, and she let out another animal shriek, swinging the blade high.
But something dark got in the way. Moving with speed Katara couldn't hope to match, Mai, somehow able to stand, move, and fight despite her heinous wound, had caught Azula's cocked-back arm, and brutally punched into the elbow, bending the joint back with a horrible crack. Azula spun with a cry of pain, her remaining hand grasping hard at Mai's throat. Katara felt the water, and demanded it obey.
For the first time, Katara had a full understanding of what it meant to be a prodigy. Hama claimed that it could only be done on the night of a full moon. Hama was wrong. It was a matter of strength. If one was strong enough, one wouldn't need the moon to enhance it. And according to everybody she had asked, Katara was the strongest waterbender of her generation, perhaps the strongest since Avatar Kyoshi's day. Despite the sun in the sky, the moon in only half-phase regardless, and her menarche well off, Katara bloodbent the maddened Fire Lord, dragging her away from Mai.
Azula crumpled on the floor, letting out one last scream, before... dissolving into weeping. Katara shot a glare at Mai, who was already moving, gathering up chains and hog-tying the firebender. But somehow, Katara knew she wouldn't need to. When Katara released her grip on Azula, so she could move to Zuko's side, Azula didn't struggle, she didn't flail. She just lay on the floor, trying to curl in on herself, weeping endlessly. A stink of urine hit the air, as the cast-down Fire Lord pissed herself in terror. Katara worked as quickly as she could, using every bit of the skill she'd managed to learn from Yugoda, letting her water direct the healing energies. Zuko's breath became steadier. Finally, his golden eyes opened. He looked at Katara without expression, but when he saw Mai, his face lit up with a smile.
"Thank you," Mai said, quietly, smiling genuinely at the waterbender.
"I should be thanking you," Katara admitted, only now having the time to wrap something over the bleeding wound on her neck. Mai helped Zuko to his feet as she did so, and all turned to look down on Azula.
"I didn't know that fire could heal," Mai said, indicating the raw scar where Azula had struck her with lightning only a few minutes ago. It looked years old, not minutes.
"Neither did I," Zuko answered, but winced when he tried to move. His injuries were very severe, for all the strong showing he was trying to make. Katara took Mai's place under Zuko's arm. On the ground, Azula stopped her inconsolable weeping and just became silent, her golden eyes staring at nothing. Mai had a smirk on her face, as she hooked a thumb through the hole which had been burnt straight through her dress, her body, then out the other side.
"And here, I thought victory was going to be boring," Mai commented.
The last words Katara heard from that battle, as she helped Zuko limp to shelter, came from his sister, and they sounded like 'Daddy, no.'
I don't understand. I'm the Fire Lord! I'm the most powerful firebender in the world!
You're alone. You're confused. But you don't need to be. Just rest. Let yourself rest.
I can't lose! Not to this Water Tribe peasant! This isn't right. It isn't fair! I'm the Fire Lord! Why can't I do anything right? What is wrong with me? Why does everybody I care about leave me? Why can't anybody love me? Why didn't Mommy love me?
Just rest, Azula.
But the dreams... What will Daddy do to me? He never leaves me alone.
The moon is bright, the wind is quiet,
The tree leaves hang over the window,
My little baby, go to sleep quickly,
Sleep, dreaming sweet dreams.
The moon is bright, the wind is quiet,
The cradle moving softly,
My little one, close your eyes,
Sleep, sleep, dreaming sweet dreams.
For the first time that she could remember... Azula slept peacefully.
Ozai smiled as the stone came tumbling down. But only for a moment, because the dust thrown up by the scree sliding past obscured his vision. In his lifetime, Ozai had been many things, but a fool was never one of them. He would never count himself victorious until he knew beyond all shadow of a doubt. Not until the Avatar's corpse was ashes blowing in the breeze. "Come on out, child," Ozai said. He leaned low over the rubble. "You're about to be..."
Ozai was cut off when an arm, battered and bleeding, shot up, grabbing his strand of beard. He had a moment of panic, as he pulled himself backward, hauling the Avatar up from under the light scree. But that panic dissipated almost immediately. The Avatar was barely conscious, holding on through sheer desperation. It was almost pitiful; the most powerful being in existence, reduced to this sort of state. Ozai slapped the hand away from his beard, then, when the boy fell, he kicked him once in the ribs just for good measure.
"You've caused me a great deal of problems, Avatar," Ozai said to the moaning form on the ground. He grabbed the boy's neck, and hurled him bodily into the remnants of the pillar. The boy slumped, but still refused to lose consciousness. It would have been a commendable trait, were it not in such a failure. "Now, I intend to claim full restitution for them. First, I'm going to kill you, which is obvious. But then, I'm going to find your little friends. Your waterbender is going to our prisons, but I'm not going to make the same mistake my father did. Her hands and feet are coming off the moment she walks through the door. And I will visit her every week; I understand that Tribesmen are quite attractive. I'll have a lot of fun with her. I might even see if she can provide a worthwhile heir. Agni knows that Zuko is a weakling and Azula is worthless and broken. She won't need hands or feet for that. But I might leave her tongue. That could be useful to me."
The Avatar's eyes tried to focus, so Ozai kneed him in the chest. "Her brother will be cut into quarters, and spread to all points of my new empire, a warning to any who dare to think that a non-bender can ever rise against the righteous rule of their betters. The treacherous Baihu will be given a traitor's death, drowned before any who care to watch. That metalbending blind girl will be hung from the neck. Let's see her try to bend rope."
"Don't do this," the Avatar whispered.
"Stop me," Ozai said. He grinned. "And you don't even want to know what I'm going to do to that traitor who used to be my son. It will be a fate he should have had meted to him on the day he was born. But you won't live to see any of this. Because you die now," Ozai began to pull the energy apart within him. "Azula's aim was poor. She thought a bolt through the heart would be enough to kill you. I will not be so sloppy."
As the lightning, compact and pure, flowed around his hands, he twisted, slamming it downward through the black hair at the top of the Avatar's head, letting it blast his brain to bits. But something went wrong, something Ozai couldn't have predicted. Instead of twitching and dying before he even knew he was dead, the Avatar did... something. A shockwave blew Ozai away, rolling to a stop no few paces away. The lightning had gone into the boy. Ozai was sure of it. But now, the Avatar rose to his feet, however battered he was, with a renewed energy.
"This is my last offer, Ozai," the Avatar said, his grey eyes hard. "You can still stop this."
"You're right, I can," Ozai answered. He spun fast, tearing the energy apart and lancing forward with two bolts of lightning, one from each extended finger. The Avatar reached forward, and the energy tore up the boy's body. The Avatar spun his arms behind him, and those same twin bolts of lightning tore away into the sky, leaving the Avatar utterly unscathed.
"You have chosen your fate," the Avatar said. "I am sorry for this, Fire Lord. You have no idea how sorry I am. You fought a boy in the Pillars of Heaven, and you thought yourself the master of everything. You used one element, the element you and your family have corrupted into a disease upon this world, and thought yourself mighty. You threatened rape and brutality on the people you conquered, and you believed yourself having all the power in the world. But you are powerless, Ozai. Because I am Aang, the Avatar. All of the Avatar's power is mine, and IT WILL OBEY ME. I gave you every chance to end this," the Avatar's eyes and tattoos flared with a brilliant bright light, and the next words spoke through a thousand voices, "but since you won't, I will."
The glow immediately faded, and Ozai smirked. He touched the center of his forehead, gathering the energy from his chi, and compacting it, creating a compressed explosion, which he cast outward. It traced a line away from his finger, snapping and popping as it moved through the air. The Avatar didn't even try to dodge. He just stood still, and held a hand out before him. When the explosion had just reached him, the Avatar closed his hand, and his tattoos flared white. The explosion hung in place. The Avatar's eyes, once opened, were glowing. A smirk came to the boy's lips. The voice he spoke with was not that of a child.
"Really? You're going to use my own trick against me?" the Avatar said. Somehow, Ozai knew that the Avatar was speaking with the voice of Fire Lord Tenko, the only Avatar to rule, however briefly, the Fire Nation. The Avatar closed his fist, and the explosion was crushed even further, until it vanished completely. The Avatar's smirk became unbearably condescending "So the child would play his elder's game? It's almost sickening to think my niece's children became you. So be it. Let it be Fire Lord against Fire Lord."
Ozai finally understood exactly why Sozin was so terrified of Roku's next iteration. Ozai watched as the boy, no, the Avatar, began to stride forward, that white glow in his eyes. As he walked, he beckoned behind him, and the river dumped up over its banks, flowing to a point by his hand, and then began to press inward. With his other hand, he called up the stone, crushing an entire Pillar of Heaven into a perfect sphere scarcely larger than Ozai's head. Not willing to hesitate another moment, Ozai lashed forward with a blast of flames. The Avatar cut through them with a blade of wind, which began to swirl and wrap around him in an almost impenetrable wall, which lifted him off the ground. The smirk vanished, and the Avatar's face became one of impassive judgment. The boy thrust out his arms and legs, bending back his head, and let out a scream of a thousand voices. From each limb or extremity, a long whip of fire grew, before bending around until they gathered into a sphere of flames so tight it was solid, directly over the Avatar's crown.
With that, Ozai took flight. He wasn't one to admit fear easily or often, but he felt it now. He seared away on jets of exploding flame, but the Avatar followed him. When Ozai rose above the level of the Pillars of Heaven, he twisted, lashing forward with three great blasts of flame. The spheres floating beside the Avatar began to rotate around him, and when the water passed before him, he thrust outward. Three fingers of water, each vastly larger than the sphere which had contained them, shot through the heart of Ozai's attacks, nullifying them. Fire was next, and the Avatar let fly a curtain of fire which seemed to erase the sky, sweeping downward. Ozai tried punching through it, but beyond that flame was only more flame. He dove back into the Pillars.
Next of the Avatar's attacks was the sphere of stone. Ozai glanced back, and saw the Avatar flaring out his fingers as that sphere was broken into tiny chips, no larger than a fingernail, which shot through the Pillars like the hail of an angry god. The whole forest of stone was torn apart, and only by the grace of Agni did Ozai manage to avoid them. The Avatar began to advance, traveling faster than Ozai could manage. Ozai began to weave through the pillars. It didn't buy him time nor distance; whenever a Pillar stood in the Avatar's way, he just pounded straight through it, no speed nor time lost. Glancing back to gage the Avatar's pursuit almost cost Ozai his life. The Avatar slammed his fists together, and before him, two of the monumental Pillars of Heaven slid together, blocking Ozai's path. He let out a growl of alarm, and quickly redirected his flight.
As Ozai twisted, he spun his arms, quickly tearing that energy apart, and sending a lightning bolt at this god-made-flesh. Without hesitation or slowing at all, the boy caught it on a finger and hurled it back, barely missing Ozai and sending rubble raining down around him. The Avatar pulled toward him, and Ozai's advance was halted completely, a hurricane wind blasting hard enough to stall him. He began to slip out of the air, and redirected himself to the top of one of the rougher-sided columns nearer the edge of the valley, next to Wulong Forest. He landed harshly, and the Avatar hovered close by. Ozai smirked, thrusting forward a hand, and letting a percussive blast surge out. See if the Avatar could stop a shockwave itself.
The Avatar clapped his hands together, a move that Zuko had pulled unexpectedly during the Agni Kai. So Zuko had actually taught this whelp? The shockwave parted along that chi-knife and moved harmlessly passed. Ozai glanced toward the forest, and his eyes grew wide when he saw that while much of it burned, his airship fleet was a shambles, many of them crashed, and some of them even in combat with each other! Ozai knew it was time to go. He had three more days to kill the Avatar.
When Ozai made to take off, however, the land denied him. Erupting up from the ground came walls of stone large enough to make Ba Sing Se look pitiful. Ozai turned, lashing out with flame once more, but the Avatar was right there, blasting him back into that wall with a jet of wind faster than any tornado. The walls began to draw down, but as they went, Ozai felt his arms become caught, dragged low, his back arched upward. The Avatar floated before him.
"Fire Lord Ozai, you and your ancestors have disrupted the balance of this world and brought it to the edge of oblivion," a thousand voices declared. "You will suffer the ultimate punishment."
Ozai couldn't do anything but stare in alarm, and wait for the end, but instead of a lethal blow of stone to the head, an icicle through the chest, or a lightning bolt through his person, the glow faded, and the boy fell back down to earth, landing with eyes lidded, and breathing deeply. "But it won't be death. That isn't how this ends."
Ozai smirked. "Then you're just as weak as I thought," he said. Then, he breathed forward a massive wash of flame. But the Avatar didn't seem surprised by this. He advanced, through that fire, with nothing but a wedge of air pushing the flames away, until he laid a hand on Ozai's bare chest, and the other, on Ozai's brow. Ozai felt something inside him, an intruder. For the first time in Ozai's life, he screamed in fear.
"How many is that?" Sokka asked, looking at the airships.
"Only two, and I think they're on our side," Ty Lee answered. Basu was much slower than Appa was, but that still made him capable of staying away from all of the other airships still afloat. "I think we've done all we can, here."
"Yeah, shouldn't we be helping Twinkletoes?" Toph asked.
Sokka nodded. "Of course," he said. "We just need to find..."
"What is it, Sokka?" Ty Lee asked. Sokka couldn't believe his eyes. He pointed to what he saw, out there in the Pillars of Heaven.
"Do any of you see that?" he asked.
"Eh. If I've seen nothing once, I've seen nothing a hundred times," Toph answered.
In the Pillars of Heaven, a great blue light shot into the sky. Even not being able to see its source, Sokka knew that it was Aang, somehow. An orange light began to flare up as well, fighting against the blue. This was Ozai.
"Oh, man, if you could see what I'm seeing right now," Sokka said, shaking his head. But he leaned forward, against the agony of his rudimentarily wrapped ankle and his slung arm, and a look of alarm shot onto his face. "Oh, no! We've got to get there!"
"Why? What do you see?" Ty Lee asked.
The blue light, the purity and the kindness, it was losing. The orange, the hatred and rage, was dominating, growing at the expense of the blue. Aang was fading away.
"Just hurry!" Sokka shouted.
Na mo a mi tuo fu xin nei.
Aang knew that he was losing himself. He tried, gods and spirits only know how hard he tried, but every effort of fight that he put forward seemed to make it easier for Ozai to inch deeper, to despoil his very soul. He could feel the Fire Lord flowing through his veins, burning away everything which made Aang Aang.
But there was something else in this place between places. Knowledge.
IN THE AGES BEFORE THE AVATAR, WE BENT NOT THE ELEMENTS, BUT THE ENERGY WITHIN THE BODIES AND WHICH FLOWED AROUND US.
The words of the Lion Turtle came to Aang were less words, and more concentrated understanding. When it spoke of the energy within and without, Aang immediately thought of fire and waterbending. He then instantly understood why Ozai's lightning wasn't any stronger today than it would have been any other day. Lightning wasn't firebending. It was a hold-over from the days before, when firebenders were... energybenders. Something which survived to the modern day because firebenders came closest to understanding the old methods. That was why firebenders could generate lightning, but waterbenders could redirect it.
WE GIVE YOU A RARE GIFT. NOT SINCE SHE WHO WAS CALLED UAMMANAQ HAS THIS BEEN GIVEN TO ANY CHILD OF THE FOUR. TO BEND THE SPIRIT OF ANOTHER, YOUR OWN SPIRIT MUST BE UNBENDABLE. OTHERWISE, YOU WILL BE CORRUPTED, AND DESTROYED.
So that was what Aang was doing. Spiritbending. Aang thought hard. How was he failing? Where was his weakness? Then, he understood, as a fragment of a conversation came back to him. He was standing in Di Huo, talking to Ty Lee. Anger was Ozai's poison. Hatred was his weapon. Aang finally and totally understood. He hadn't locked his Thought Chakra; he hadn't fallen by choosing attachment. He locked his Heart, by choosing hatred.
Aang finally took that hatred which had nestled into the core of his being, and looked at it for what it was. Needless blame. Ozai was not Sozin. They would each have to face their own punishments for their own crimes. Ozai could not pay the costs his grandfather incurred. That would be unjust. While Ozai had his own crimes, and deserved punishment, his punishment would be for he alone, undertaken with a clear vision and a whole heart. Aang let the hatred flow away.
And then the power flowed.
It was pure creation and destruction, yin and yang, push and pull. He could do anything he wanted to Ozai. He could leave him spiritual bankrupt, or give him strength that would rival an Avatar's own. But now was the time for just punishment, earned in cruelty and rapacity. Aang felt the energy flow, and he let it all drift away from both of them. Above his mortal shell, a column of light shot into the heavens, the spark of a grandmaster firebender vanishing into the ether. Aang sagged, and the Fire Lord slumped. Aang let the bonds fall away.
Ozai tried to get to his feet, but his body wouldn't obey him. He was thinking with a firebender's mind, but he no longer possessed a firebender's spirit. "What did you do to me?" Ozai asked, his voice rasping and confused.
"I took away your firebending," Aang said. "You will no longer be able to use it to kill or intimidate people ever again. You are now just a normal person, not a king, not a leader, not a martyr. That is the punishment you have earned in nine years as Fire Lord. Be thankful you did not last longer, nor do worse."
Aang was speaking nothing but truth. Kyoshi was right. They all were. They weren't telling him to kill Ozai. They were telling him how not to. Aang heard a familiar bellow behind him, and turned, smiling as an enormous tongue knocked him a step backward. His eyes narrowed a bit, though, when he beheld a beast which was not his own.
"Basu found me!" Ty Lee shrieked with delight.
Sokka slid off the beast carefully, but with a huge grin on his face. "You did it, Aang! You should have seen it! You were all glowing and blue and then he was all glowing and orange, and then the orange started to creep in and take you over, then at the last possible second BOOM and then there was blue all over the place..."
"You're beginning to sound like Ty Lee," Aang said.
Toph began to laugh uproariously at that, bounding down to the top of the pillar. Toph took a step toward Ozai's supine form. "So... did you," she paused, sucking her teeth, "finish the job?"
"I'm still alive," Ozai said threateningly from the ground.
"I learned from a giant lion turtle that I could take away his firebending without killing him," Aang said, relieved to be surrounded by friends. He turned. The forest below was still ablaze. That wouldn't do. He opened up to that energy from the universe, and let it flow through him. Uammanaq spoke to him, her words and her power flowing through him. He pulled up the water from the sea, creating a tide which swept up over the land, bathing the trees. It was so much like the first waterbending he'd ever learned, when Katara was still the novice, but on a scale which could change the world. Then, with the flames snuffed, he let it flow back out.
"Wow. Was that you?" Ty Lee asked.
"Yeah, he's the Avatar," Toph said. "He does that sort of... wait... You're not angry."
"I am Avatar Aang."
It was all the explanation that Aang needed to give. Sokka, though, seemed unable to ignore an opportunity to taunt the Fire Lord. "Well, look at you, buster. You're not so big without your firebending, now are you, 'Loser Lord'?"
Ozai rose to his feet... and still had to tilt his head back a bit to look into Sokka's eyes. "I am the Phoenix King," Ozai said harshly.
"Yeah, right. Phoenix King of gettin' your butt whooped," Toph said, punching her palm. But it was Ty Lee's reaction which made Aang nervous. Her eyes became dead and stony, her expression grim and hateful. She stood before Ozai, pushing her beau aside and glaring up at him. Aang wondered if he could intercede if she did something rash.
"More like the 'Failure King'," Ty Lee said harshly, then kicked Ozai very hard in the shin, making him fall over onto his face. Toph let out a belly laugh.
"Sugarqueen, you're not half bad at this nicknaming thing," Toph admitted.
"Why don't you have one?" Aang asked, finally broaching the topic, letting the fallen Fire Lord mutter darkly and impotently on the ground. "I mean, we've all got nicknames, but you don't."
"How about 'Shorty'," Ty Lee offered.
"What?" Toph shouted. "I ain't that much shorter than you, circus freak!"
"Aw, did I hit a nerve?" Ty Lee asked with a sweet smile. Aang turned, and his eyes widened as an airship was lowering toward the Pillar. A man in red armor, sans helmet, stood at the fire deck.
"Is that the false Fire Lord?" the man asked.
"It is," Sokka answered. False Fire Lord? "Who are you?"
"Lieutenant Kenzo, de facto commander of what's left of this fleet," Kenzo nodded. "I assume you heard Wang Fire's announcement?"
"I was right there when he did it," Sokka said. "I don't think he made it out alive."
"Then he died as a true hero to the Fire Nation," Kenzo said. "We're placing Ozai under arrest. If you like, we could offer you transport, Avatar Aang."
"Wow, this is a lot friendlier than I expected to get," Aang admitted. He looked up as Momo descended from the sky, landing on his shoulder. The beast which was also his father-figure let out a cooing sound, something that almost sounded like pride.
"Traitors," Ozai muttered from the ground.
"Don't worry about him," Toph said. "Aang nutted him but good."
Hakoda watched as the ships began to power away, leaving what fires still burned in Kad Deid to gutter under their own power. He quickly vaulted up through the city, his body still spry for his forty odd years, and watched as they departed without so much as a parting shot. He looked up. The three firebenders, two former prisoners and one the ruler of this nation, seemed to slump with relief.
It didn't take long for Hakoda to reach their place on the fortifications. "We've won this, but I'm not sure why or how," Hakoda said.
"The White Lotus arranged for... a bit of misdirection," the Empress said. "Every Fire Nation army in the world has received orders to stand down and wait for further instructions."
"How? How could you do this?"
"I didn't," the Empress said innocently, her mature tones oddly singsong. "I'm just the widow of Emperor Zeruel the Second. Certainly not somebody capable of sending the entire military of a continent into a tailspin."
Hakoda stared at her for a moment. "I almost believed that," Hakoda said. "You're an exceptional liar. Remind me never to become your enemy."
Golden eyes glared at him through the partially molten silver mask. A smirk came to her painted lips. "As long as you don't tell the new Fire Lord who I am, I won't be."
Iroh walked up the thoroughfares of Ba Sing Se. Twisted and broken Salamander tanks littered the streets of the Upper Ring. A glance down one side street showed King Bumi doing what he did best; making a royal mess of things. Without a glance, the brilliant, but somewhat mad king stacked five tanks atop each other, ruining all of them.
Down another street, Master Pakku had frozen an entire platoon of firebenders harmlessly to the ground. Without a proper understanding of techniques like the Breath of Fire, they would be trapped there until Pakku released them. The soldiers and benders and warriors of the White Lotus flowed through the city, their experience and cohesiveness easily outmatching the ordinarily overwhelming strength of the firebenders left behind as garrison of Ba Sing Se.
"I never thought I would walk this path," Piandao said, striding beside the once Prince. "Even now, it is a vision beyond compare."
"It will be great again," Yingsu Beifong said. She looked quite a bit like her aunt, albeit with eyes much more green than brown. How Iroh missed his wife. "Even with the Earth King's line dead and gone, the nation will rise again. We have suffered worse and endured."
Iroh looked in the distance at the Royal Palace. The symbol of the Earth Kingdoms had been chipped away, and standards for the Fire Nation hung in their place. Without a word, Iroh cast out a finger, and a lance of fire blasted the standards to ashes. Ba Sing Se was free again.
"This is just terrible," Fu Yin said for what was probably the eightieth time that day. He was predictable and insufferable. There was a reason she didn't like these people very much. She had entered the room without making a sound, which was usual for her, but made two of the three occupants of the fairly well appointed room start with alarm when they noticed her.
"Mai?" Mother asked. "Is that you?"
"Have you gone blind? Of course it is," Mai said peevishly.
"Has the Fire Lord recaptured New Ozai?" Father asked hopefully.
"No," Mai answered. She reached into her sleeve and pulled out a document. When she saw this while she was rummaging through the former Fire Lords' things, she knew that she had to deliver it by hand. "And it's Omashu, not New Ozai. The King made that abundantly clear."
"But... how did you get in here?" Mother asked.
"I asked politely," Mai said flatly. She brandished the document. "You might want to know that the Fire Lord isn't too happy with you. Because of your ineptitude in your handling of first governing, and then losing New Ozai, the Fire Lord declared you all banished."
"What?" Mother screamed.
"Ozai wanted me executed for treason as well," Mai said idly. "Oddly, it was Fire Lord Azula who redacted that part. She agreed with your banishment, though."
"Fire Lord..." Father asked, unable to follow.
"Yes. This might be the most official document in the world," Mai said sarcastically. "It's the only one which was signed into law by three different Fire Lords."
"But then who's...?"
"Fire Lord Zuko," Mai said. "My husband, if you cared to know."
Fu Yin's face brightened. "I knew you would find the right man if given proper instruction and clarity."
"Don't get so cocky," Mai said. A smile came to her face. A dark smile. "You are forgetting. You're banished. You're never to set foot in the Fire Nation ever again. Neither Zuko nor I saw any need to change that. You're a bootlicker and a sycophant, and my husband will have nothing to do with you."
"You can't do this to us!" Mother shouted. "We're your parents!"
"I can do whatever I need to," Mai said. She turned, then paused at the door. "We did make one small alteration, though," she turned, looking at her younger brother. "One name was specifically excluded from that banishment. Tahm, if you ever want to visit your sister, you are always welcome. As for you two?" Mai let the words hang in the air painfully, then she exited, closing the door on them, and the last bit of influence that they would ever hold on her life, forever.
Sozin's Comet was a lot more impressive now than it had been yesterday. Of course, it hadn't been since yesterday that she'd done much moving of any significant quantity. As much as it pained her to lose a fight, especially to a dink like Jeong Jeong, the fact that she wasn't dead was probably as powerful a claim to her martial aptitude as could exist in this world. She, with nothing but a fan and a sword, and the spirit of a two hundred and thirty year old Avatar looking over her shoulder, stood her ground against the Royal Firemaster on the day of Sozin's Comet and didn't end up as a smear on the rocks.
Of course, the pain was outstanding.
"Suki! Are you alive?" an excitable voice came, and in an instant, Ty Lee was staring down into Suki's face. Her expression was extremely concerned.
"More or less," Suki said, her voice casual, despite everything. "I'm in a tremendous amount of pain, though."
Ty Lee turned back, away from where Suki was able to see. "Guys! We need a healer down here now!"
"Oh, it isn't that bad," Suki said, gingerly touching her face. It didn't feel quite right, but considering her opponent, not surprising. "I can't seem to see out of my left eye, though."
"That's because it's not there anymore," Ty Lee said, concern plain on her face.
"That makes sense," Suki admitted. Ty Lee reached down and began to run her fingers along Suki's chest and neck, and the pain began to ebb somewhat. If that was chi blocking, then thank the spirits for it. "Do I really need to ask why I can't feel my leg?"
"Yeah... it's not there either," Ty Lee said. Suki let out an anguished sigh. Lost a leg. So much for the fight at this point. She lifted both her hands.
"Well, I've still got these. I'm still alive, so that's... something."
"Suki, you don't look so good," Ty Lee said.
"I'm proud of you," Suki said. Ty Lee frowned, leaning in close. Suki caught Ty Lee's face between her hands. "When it came down to it, you fought for the world. You fought for Kyoshi. It may not be much, but I consider you a Kyoshi Warrior."
Suki wiped her thumbs up along the line of Ty Lee's eyes, her blood emulating the distinctive paint of the warriors of the long fallen Avatar. Ty Lee smiled for a moment, then leaned back up and shouted. "I NEED A HEALER!"
Suki didn't mind. She knew she was going to survive today. Destiny was their friend. And it wasn't Suki's destiny to die today. She was sure of it.
Zuko looked up at the sky, slowly pulling on his ceremonial robes. He hurt just about everywhere, but considering the amount of punishment he'd taken the day before yesterday, it was astounding to most that he was even able to stand. For that, he had Katara to thank. She seemed poised on the edge of offering to help him, but he'd told her that he'd do this himself, and she respected that decision. He was slowly tying the robes with the sash when the door banged open, and his constant shadow entered the room, smiling slightly. Zuko brightened.
"Mai, you made it back," he said, smiling.
"I just had some family business to deal with," Mai answered. "Besides, I wouldn't want to miss your coronation."
"Always looking out for me," Zuko muttered.
"Somebody has to," Mai answered. She turned to Katara. "You don't need to hover. He's going to be fine."
Katara didn't see much room for argument. "He's a very lucky man. Or else an unbelievably tough one."
"You don't need to tell me that," Mai said. Katara gave Zuko's wife a nod, and departed. Light from outside streamed into the room. Behind him, Mai prepared his hair into a phoenix tail. He considered the double flame headpiece, but he knew it would be in the way. He wasn't the Dark Prince, not anymore. "You almost look like a Fire Lord."
"As compared to what?"
Mai smiled lightly, patting him on the cheek. "You do realize that the people aren't going to be content with you just appearing with a Fire Lady."
"Yeah," Zuko said, working his muscles so they wouldn't embarrass him. "I suspect there's going to have to be a proper, royal wedding soon."
"Sooner than later," Mai said, nodding. Zuko knew why. He'd understandably freaked out a bit about it when she mentioned it, as an off handed remark, while they wandered Ember Island looking for Aang, but the time since calmed his nerves somewhat. A little bit, anyway. He was going to be alright.
Better than. Zuko was going to be a father.
"This is it," Zuko said, a tightness in his chest not attributable to being struck by lightning. "I'm... actually the Fire Lord."
"You say that like it's a surprise," Mai said. "Some people never believed you'd end up as anything but."
Zuko smiled, and began to walk out into the light. Sozin's Comet now blazed brightly overhead, casting the noon with a reddish sheen. Tomorrow would see it recede again until it was a reddish blotch in the sky. The day after that, and it would vanish for another hundred years. Before him was a crowd of many peoples. Shoulder to shoulder stood warriors from the South Water Tribe, earthbenders, Whalesh, and many others. Yesterday, they had been prisoners. Now, the force which almost toppled Ozai's reign a month ago now stood as honored guests. Beyond them, hundreds, if not thousands of Fire Nation citizens crowded the Fire Court.
"Today, this war is finally over," Zuko announced. The crowd became silent. "I promised my father, the exiled Prince Iroh, that I would restore the honor of the Fire Nation. But I cannot. I cannot because you have restored that honor in yourselves. A century of animosity will not be easily overcome, and the path we walk will not be easy, but I have faith that we can work together to heal this divided world, and restore the balance which was so long broken."
Zuko looked up as a murmur began to ripple through the crowd, and a bubble opened up around one who moved forward through it. Zuko couldn't help but smile.
"With the help of the Avatar," Zuko said, motioning toward Aang, who had come to a stop at the head of the crowd, "we will bring the Fire Nation back onto the right path. We will begin a new age, not of war and conquest, but of peace, understanding, and mutual advancement."
The crowd seemed pleased with his speech. Despite her comments otherwise, Mai had a good grasp of the emotions of the people. Having Minister Jee working with him also smoothed things tremendously. He would have never thought Jee, the cantankerous old middling firebender whom he'd spent three years with on a boat, would return to serve him as one of his highest political advisors. Destiny was a funny thing. The Fire Sages, eleven in number and arrayed behind him resplendent in red robes very much like Zuko's own, held aloft the five point Phoenix Flare.
"By right of abdication of Fire Lord Iroh, you are named Fire Lord," the Fire Sage announced, sliding the Pheonix Flare into place. Zuko slid the pin through the phoenix tail, locking it in place. "All hail Fire Lord Zuko!"
The crowd began to bow down. Zuko looked back at the Fire Sages. "Once, long ago, the Fire Lord was merely first among the Fire Sages. Those days may never return, but I will not demand obedience. I emancipate the Fire Sages from the rule of the Fire Lord," Zuko said. The aged Fire Sage nodded gratefully. It was but one of many things Sozin had done which Zuko now had to undo. Zuko turned to the crowd. Only Aang was still standing. Zuko smirked. "It is traditional, Aang, to bow before the Fire Lord."
Aang gave a start, glancing about. He made as though to bow, but Zuko moved first, fighting his own aching body, and bowing himself, to the Avatar.
"But these are not traditional days," Zuko finished. "Rise, my subjects, rise, my guests. Ozai imprisoned you for your attack on my city. As Fire Lord, I give you pardon and free return to your homes. You will not be accosted by any force under a true Fire Nation flag."
The former prisoners had expected this. Hakoda had returned from Kad Deid, where they'd driven off the Fire Nation's seige, and informed them so that – in his words – they wouldn't try anything drastic during Zuko's coronation. Zuko had only one more thing to announce, and this one in particular was a thing of happiness. "And finally, I must announce my impending marriage to Mai, of the Azuli House Loyo Lah. The rifts within the Fire Nation need to be healed every bit as much as those without it. It is time for all peoples to become one. Go in peace, citizens. A new day dawns."
Zuko turned and walked back into the building, only allowing the extreme discomfort onto his face once his back was turned. Even this was strenuous activity for somebody who had only gotten up from the infirmary once since a terrible electrocution before this hour. He leaned against the pole out of sight for a long moment, and Aang came to him.
"It's hard to believe that four years ago, the only goal I had in life was to destroy you," Zuko said. Aang ran his fingers along his hair with a smile.
"It's hard to believe that four years ago, I was frozen inside a block of ice," Aang said. "Things change, don't they?"
"Yeah," Zuko said.
"So... what did you do? Nobody said anything about what happened to Azula," Aang asked.
Zuko glanced toward the ground. "She was... incarcerated. We have her guarded all the time, in case she tries something. I don't want to hurt her, but I know what she's capable of."
"There's another option," Aang said quietly.
"Can we not talk about this, not right now?" Zuko asked, feeling a stab of pain in his guts, not associated with any injury Azula had given him. Yet, in a way, it was.
"If you like," Aang said, nodding sagely. He looked over and saw Katara waiting. "I should go. We've got nothing but time."
"Yeah. Weird how that feels," Zuko said. He began to walk, and Aang turned to his woman. Whatever the two of them had to say together, it was none of the Fire Lord's business. After less than a dozen steps, Mai was at his side, ever his constant shadow. "Was that to your satisfaction?"
"You could have gushed a little bit more about me," Mai said neutrally. "Flowing verses of poetry about my beauty, bravery, and lethality. That would have been nice."
"Yeah, right. You would have beaten me to within an inch of my life if I tried," Zuko smiled. Mai took his arm in hers, leaning her lustrous black hair on his shoulder. "It doesn't seem real. Like all of this is a dream and I'm going to wake up, and I'll be... I don't know. Back on the boat with Iroh, my head shaved, looking for the Boy in the Iceburg."
"You really should listen to Sokka and stop making it too easy for the universe to ruin your day," Mai pointed out. With a light chuckle, she parted, and Zuko looked over a garden, with the turtle duck pond tucked in at its edge. He remembered all the times he and his mother fed the little creatures, all the hurts she soothed. For some reason, those memories were more distant now. Zuko was calm. He was at peace. For the first time in his life, he was happy.
He had a notion.
He began to pull his arms through a circular motion, and felt energy inside him pull apart, separating into positive and negative. It crackled along his arms, gathering at his fingertips. He let his arm guide the energy, and with a thunderclap, a bolt of lightning shot away from his extended fingers, up into the empty sky. Zuko stared at the purple afterimage of the lightning bolt he had generated. A glance to the door showed that Mai had returned, knives in hand, as though expecting some threat. But all she would see was Zuko, smiling, nodding to himself an understanding years in the making.
"Did anybody see where Zuko went? This is supposed to be his party," Ty Lee said, hopping around, standing on her toes trying to see over people. It was ridiculous. She was an airbender. Aang had made sure of that. She had a lot of training to do, and he had still much to teach her, but she was an airbender. Ever since she'd gotten her glider repaired, she threw herself into training. Aang wasn't sure if Sokka was too happy about that.
"I don't know," Aang said. The marriage celebration had been about as lavish as one would have expected it to be, considering it was between the ruler and consort of a nation. Now, that the actual ceremony was over, the numbers had dwindled from thousands to a couple hundred. At the moment, the only music filling the room came from Iroh's Tsungi horn. "Maybe he needed to use the bathroom."
"He's off by himself," Mai's voice cut in. She was still wearing black, but this time it served a double purpose. Even as it was apparently her favorite color, it also gave her an illusion of slimness. Aang had been very surprised to see her gain weight since the last time he'd come to the Fire Nation, at Zuko's coronation two months ago. "He does that sometimes. I don't know where he goes, but if it was important, he'd tell me."
Aang knew that the two were already actually married, but the fact that Mai had become visibly pregnant before the nation even knew they were husband and wife must have been scandalous. Still, they seemed to take it in stride. "That's kind of a shame. I needed to talk to him about something."
"If you can talk to him, you can talk to me," Mai said, guiding the Avatar away from the celebrating crowds. Celebrations seemed to be going on non-stop around the planet, these days. Aang had traveled from celebration to celebration. Thousands raising their glasses and singing their praises of Avatar Aang and Fire Lord Zuko. But that wasn't all that Aang saw. There was discontent. There were loyalists to Ozai. The trickery that the Empress of Great Whales utilized to save her city had only sent the army away. It was still a threat, festering in the islands of Great Whales to this day. Dozens of small armies, loyal to Ozai and his vision for the Fire Nation, still wandered the East Continent. It was peace, but an unsteady one.
"I've been thinking about the state of the world," Aang said, as soon as he and the Fire Lady were clear of the crowds.
"You do realize this is my wedding?" Mai asked. "You should be dancing with your woman and tricking people into giving you wine, not contemplating the hardships of the future."
"I know," Aang said. "But I have a power, something not seen in a thousand years. I can deal with threats that I thought could only end with death. I can..."
"You want to spiritbend Azula's firebending away, don't you?" Mai asked. Aang tripped over his own words.
"She's dangerous," Aang said quietly. "I've thought and thought, and everything I consider comes back to the fact that she's been waiting for an opportunity to escape, and disrupt everything we've fought so hard to gain. As long as she's a firebender, she will always be a threat."
"And you call yourself kind," Mai said harshly.
"I don't consider this lightly, Fire Lady," Aang said sternly.
"You call her a threat? When was the last time you saw her?" Aang glanced away. "I don't think you've visited her once since her defeat. Ty Lee's already done better than that. You say she's waiting for an opportunity? She lies in her own filth, unable to even feed herself," Mai stressed. "I had her transferred to a hospital on Grand Ember, more than a month ago. She's not waiting. She's inert. And if you took away her firebending, I don't doubt that it would break her will completely. She would wither away and die. And despite everything, I don't think she's earned that."
"But she threw a lightning bolt at you," Aang pointed out.
"I'm well aware. I still don't think you have the right to kill her because of it. By my cultural laws, only I get that right. And despite my reputation, I'm not a vengeful person. She's ill. She needs medical help. Not spiritual castration."
Aang nodded. He could see her point. "What does Zuko think about this?"
"That is his position as well. He's soft hearted. He doesn't want to hurt his sister," Mai said simply. Aang actually felt himself sag a bit, not from disappointment, but from relief. He really didn't want to do this himself, either.
"I will respect your decision," Aang said. "I just hope for all our sakes that that it's the right one."
"Time will tell, Avatar. Time will tell," Mai said. She sighed. "You know the most depressing part? When they brought her in, they took her to her old room. This is the second time she's been a patient in that place." She walked back into the crowd, leaving Aang to ponder that as he would. After a moment, Aang followed after. Chong Sheng, Zuko's dragon, curled around the throne which Zuko had for the moment vacated, Instead, it nuzzled at Mai affectionately. It was significantly larger than the last time Aang saw it. Now, it was twice as long as Appa. Not fully grown yet, but still quite something. He went by where Sokka sat, off to one side, drawing something.
"It's a shame that your father couldn't be here for this," Aang said, somewhat disengenuously. He still had a bruise on his chest from his last meeting with Hakoda. Sokka glanced up. He looked unshaven, but otherwise well kept.
"He's been away from home for five years," Sokka said. "I think he's earned a bit of a break from foreign trips."
Sokka went back to drawing whatever it was that he was drawing. Aang leaned over. "Hey, is that us? Wait, why does Katara have Momo's ears?"
"And why does Zuko look like a boarquepine?" Ty Lee asked. Katara, hearing this, leaned over herself.
"And why is Ty Lee firebending?"
Iroh, who had come all the way from Ba Sing Se, stopped playing his Tsungi horn for a moment and pointed at the page. "And my belly isn't that big anymore. I've really trimmed down," the abdicated Fire Lord said pleasantly, before returning to making light music.
"This isn't a picture of you!" Sokka exclaimed. "I'm trying to figure out how I designed a photographic camera in the Spirit world. It's not as easy as you'd think."
"You could always ask some people," Ty Lee said. "Like... at Ba Sing Se University?"
"What do you mean?" Sokka asked. Ty Lee held out a gold and green bag, one that Sokka had accidentally stolen in Burning Rock, and then thought lost when he had to abandon it on Avalanche. Sokka tore through it, finding the spirit scroll in a heartbeat, a bewildered expression on his face. He grinned, pulling Ty Lee into a hug which could have come from her. "You are the best girlfriend ever!"
"I know... I can't breathe," Ty Lee said. Aang walked outside, looking at the red horizon, the sun setting beyond it. Two months ago, they had been in the fight of their lives, to save the world itself. Now... Katara came and stood next to him. He slid an arm around her waist, pulling her close.
"It's beautiful," Katara said.
"...I feel like I'm supposed to say something romantic right now, but it's not coming," Aang admitted. He reached into the pocket of his shirt; while as Avatar, he was of all nations, he still felt odd. Like he didn't really have a people anymore. The Air Nomads were gone. The last of them died a hundred years ago. Aang had to become something new, find a new identity for himself. He was an Air Nomad no longer, and only now was beginning to understand that. The Air Nomads died out a century ago, and yet he had to find a way to make sure that the airbenders went on. He slid a finger over the gem. "I'm sixteen years old," Aang said. "If the world were a simpler place, the monks would come and tell me today that I was the Avatar, that the world was depending on me to keep the balance."
"Thank the spirits this isn't a simpler world," Katara said. "If it was, you and I would never have met."
"And I would have died a long time ago," Aang said. He pulled the jewel out, glancing down at it. "There's something I want to give you."
"What is it?" Katara asked. He held it before her. It was unique. He'd made it himself, from the stone that he'd crushed in the Pillars of Heaven. The resulting gem had properties seen nowhere else on earth, save for the jewel in Zuko's Phoenix Flare or the Spear of Nannuica in the North. It was harder than steel, but clear, with the slightest tinge of blue to it. Its surface caught and reflected the light. It was a betrothal necklace. "Aang... this is..."
"It was the only thing I thought was worthy of you," Aang said. "And I hope I'm doing this right. When I talked to your father about it, he threw me out a window."
"He did what?" Katara asked.
"Well... I kinda admitted that we'd made love, and that made him a bit angry. He said that if I hadn't been so dead set on doing the right thing, he'd have taken me to a higher window before defenestrating me. I learned what that word meant that day," Aang grinned. Katara stared at him, astounded. "I notice you haven't... you know... accepted."
Katara shook her head slowly, but her smile was bright and beaming. She pulled him close, resting her forehead against his, and closed her hand over the necklace. Without a word, she reached up, pulling her mother's heirloom from its place on her neck, and replaced it with Aang's. She looked up at him, those impossibly blue eyes shining. "Does that answer your question?"
Aang smiled, and the two looked to the sunset.
Zuko opened the door to the dank cell. He knew he shouldn't have come here on his 'wedding' day, that it was supposed to be happy, but right now, he was furious with the man who had called himself Zuko's father. The cage within the cell had been replaced since Iroh extracted himself from it. Zuko walked into the cell and let the door close behind him. The stink hit him like a wave. Ozai obviously hadn't bothered bathing recently.
"I should could myself lucky that the Fire Lord would grace me with his presence in my lowly cell," Ozai said sarcastically, sitting on the floor in rags.
"Your assassins failed," Zuko said. "I don't know how you contracted them, but I felt you should know that. You sent four men to kill my wife in the night. Now they'll be spending the next few decades considering their stupidity in working for you on the Boiling Rock."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Ozai said, but Zuko could smell the lie on him along with the stink.
"You must not. Otherwise you would have known that even a pregnant Azuli woman is worth ten assassins," Zuko said. "You are a very lucky man, for Aang to have spared your life."
"I feel quite lucky," Ozai said, staring hatefully.
"Be thankful you can feel anything," Zuko said. He tilted his head to one side. "Do you remember what you said, on the day of our first Agni Kai. I was thirteen years old, but I still remember it. Do you?" Ozai glanced away. "Your words were: 'You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher'. And the strange thing was, you were right. You banishing me was the kindest thing you could have done for me. In a roundabout way, you planted the seeds of your own destruction when you decided that I wasn't worthy as a son. Instead, you foist me upon my real father, and he showed me what real fatherhood is. He showed me a better path for my life. Maybe your time in this prison could do the same for you."
"We're walking around the issue," Ozai said. "You want to know where she is, don't you? That's why you've come to me again."
"I'm beginning to think you don't even know where my mother is," Zuko said harshly. "And even if you did, you enjoy seeing others suffer too much to tell me. So no, I'm not here to ask about my mother. I do have a question for you, though, one I know you have the answer to. The only issue will be if you're man enough to answer it."
"And what question would that be?"
"What did you do to Azula?"
Children of Fire
Notice how I didn't click 'complete'?